Sensitivity and social media during disasters

Like many journalists, I was caught up in the coverage of the shootings at Virginia Tech last week. I played a very minor role looking for stories in social networks and on blogs. The coverage generated a lot of questions about how the media should or shouldn’t engage with social networks online.

I’ve been doing newsgathering through blogs and social networks for two years now, but I’ve never seen the media rush into these online spaces as they did last week. I’ve been mulling it over ever since, but I’ve still got more questions than answers. The BBC’s Robin Hamman has been asking many questions in the wake of his own role in the coverage. He wondered on his personal blog whether he really needed to confirm the quotes, or it would have been enough to link and disclaim. And on the BBC’s Manchester blog, he is now asking: When is a Blog in Public Meant to Remain Private?

That’s an interesting question and one I’ve run up against before. Last autumn, Guardian journalists asked me to find people struggling with alcoholism who were blogging. It wasn’t easy in the UK, but I found a couple of blogs including one person who wrote eloquently about his struggles with alcohol. We linked to his blog. He called us after seeing Guardian URLs in his trackbacks. He was furious and said we had no right to link to his blog, even though it was public. In retrospect, I probably should have contacted him considering the sensitivity of this issue, but -not only as a journalist, but also as a long-time internet user – I had difficulty understanding his outrage over a perceived transgression of privacy when he had written his thoughts on one of the least private of spaces: a blog.

So how can one tell when a public blog is meant to be private? Does the responsibility lie with me to interpret whether someone who publishes something in public wishes to remain private? Again, in retrospect, I should have tried to clear the link with this particular author because the subject matter was sensitive, but as Robin says in his post, if he had to clear every link with every blogger, he would spend a lot of time clearing links and precious little time writing posts.

Yet linking is not just a part of blogging, it is essential to it. A good blogger links to other bloggers – it’s how we make blogs a part of a distributed conversation. Linking is a well established online behaviour, and both net etiquette and the law say that permission is not required to link. Indeed, it would be damaging to the net if we had to ask permission every time we wanted to link. But this doesn’t mean that everything has to be done in public where it can be linked. If someone wants a private or semi-private blog, there are plenty of services that allow your writings to be only seen by friends and family, or by those to whom you give a password.

Now, in the case of Virginia Tech, it wasn’t one journalist linking, but several – possibly hundreds – of journalists asking questions of bloggers or members of social networks. One journalist and LiveJournaler, Adam Tinworth, called this “digital doorstepping“, a reference to media’s previous practice of going to the doorstep of family members and asking them questions such as: “How do you feel?”

But is it more invasive to leave a question in a comment or send an e-mail than to turn up on a family’s doorstep uninvited? Comments on your blog or LiveJournal are very easy to ignore in a time of crisis, as are emails. Instant messages are a bit more intrusive, but electronic forms of communicate are far less intrusive than phone calls or camping out on someone’s front lawn. Doorstepping is insensitive and reflects badly on journalists, but I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to equate leaving a comment with doorstepping.

I agree with Craig McGinty that journalists are still finding their way in this new space and I’d echo his concern:

One thing I think a journalist has to consider is that if they see messages previously left by other news organisations do they really think their request is going to make any difference?

But as Adam says, this isn’t new. The question has always been one of sensitivity. I’ve covered more accidents, tragedies and disasters than I care to think about, most not from behind a computer but on the ground. There are some journalists who get caught up in the rush for a story, but many of the journalists I know do not fit the caricature of the exclusive-hungry hack focused on the story and oblivious to the pain of the people involved.

Robin linked to a LiveJournaler who was livid over the coverage and asked what business the US national or international media had in covering this story. He suggested that outlets outside of the area rely on the local media, who know the area better. I’d agree with the LJer that the student journalists did an amazing job, but if I were still in based in Washington, there is no way that I could tell my editor that I won’t go to cover the story because the local and student media are doing the job. The LJer said he would quit rather than “go sticking a microphone in the face of someone who’s just experienced a tragedy”. Well, he wouldn’t have to quit. He’d be fired.

But there is an underlying assumption in not only his post, but also many other anti-media comments, that covering tragedy is de facto invasive and that it cannot be done with sensitivity and humanity. I reject that idea. It creates a false dichotomy between no or very little coverage and overly invasive, insensitive coverage when it’s clear there are miles between those two poles.

Ironically, when it comes to approaching people online, I think it’s difficult to get the tone right in an e-mail, an IM message or a blog comment because you don’t have benefit of non-verbal cues, of body language. Perhaps the clumsiness of electronic communication might have amplified the sense of intrusion in this case. Certainly I’ve winced at fellow journalists, who are not digital natives, as they stumble into online communities: they never modify their tone or pitch from a standard cut-and-paste interview request, and it sounds corporate, impersonal and frankly, uninviting. But again, that’s a slightly separate issue. I know many journalists who can’t or won’t modify their approach when dealing with a member of the public as opposed to dealing with politicians and public figures.

I think it’s important for me to leave the best impression possible with any member of the public. That’s part of my job. I remember speaking to a colleague at a previous employer who said that one of the biggest parts of his job was doing damage control after rude journalists had gone into a community to cover a story. Ouch. I may be the only contact a person has with my company, and how I conduct myself in public will leave a lasting impression about my publication, network or station. I don’t understand how some journalists can’t turn off the aggressive investigative journalism mode when it’s not required or appropriate. I’m not advocating saccharine, overly-emotional coverage, just respect for members of the public, especially when they are caught up in tragic events. It’s not their fault that suddenly their lives are of public interest because of disaster or tragedy. That’s the same online or off.

In the end, I think the best way for journalists to work with members of social networks is actually to join them and actively participate early on, whether it’s blogs, NewsVine, Facebook or any other community. They won’t need to be so invasive when news breaks because they’ll already be known to the community and, hopefully, will understand the netiquette, and if they are recognised as journalists, they may even find that they are approached by those wanting to tell their own stories. Sometimes, people do want to share their stories with the media, and if journalists make themselves more approachable then they may find that their eyewitnesses come to them.

It’s never easy to cover tragedies or disasters. For people who think that journalists are all ‘maggots’, ‘vultures’ or ‘scum’, all I’d say that it’s wrong when journalists generalise or oversimplify a story, and it’s just as wrong to generalise about journalists.

Postscript: A lot of my thinking for this post was informed by the great roundup of criticism Martin Stabe provided on Fleet Street 2.0 and Chris Vallance’s excellent post. (He covered the story for 5Live’s Pods and Blogs, a programme we used to work on together.)

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